We had been going the wrong way the whole time, that much was clear. I couldn’t get the map function on my phone to work. I don’t know exactly what the temperature was, but we were sucking hot air and our skin was growing noticeably red. My oldest child kept stopping us so we could take long pulls from our water bottles, and for once I didn’t show exasperation at that. I was wondering where we could refill them when they ran dry. We were in an area of town with endless office parks and grueling hills taking us up and over the intertwined highways and overpasses. I was artificially cheerful. My new role as a mother had been to become a chirpy spokesperson for optimism. The babies were in the trailer and had—alarmingly—become slumped and listless with the heat. I tried to convince myself it was just boredom, and tried to keep them engaged by pointing out the trees, the buildings, the big trucks that passed us. Talk to me, I’d say. What do you see? Are you sleeping? Wake up for me. Mama needs you to be awake. I was frightened for us, but only because of the heat, and I thought the water we were drinking was enough of a salve against that that we would be fine if we just endured. When I got to the top what ended up being the hardest, highest hill of our journey and realized I had turned us around and that it had all been for nothing, I tried to pretend I didn’t want to sob, and that I wasn’t so desperately out of breath. I felt my heart beating fast and strong in my cheeks, and I could see the miserable, resigned fatigue on my daughter’s face.
Getting lost is altogether different when you’re not in a car. It becomes a burden of magnitude, involving weather and the need for food, water, a bathroom. Some simple miscalculations can mean a seemingly endless trek through inhospitable territory. Rail yards. Industrial areas with warehouses made of corrugated metal. Plans must be made, details attended to, and provisions packed. When we got home from this one, the worst of that first car-less summer, we fell into the house and lay still, on the carpeted living room floor. My husband scolded and fretted and brought us cold things, water. I had a strong wave of nausea but I fought it, laying as still as possible and raising upright for small sips. This needed to not happen again, not this way. I couldn’t allow it.
I needed to start planning things better. Forgetting something at home that is needed for the day’s errand might mean losing the entire afternoon, especially if appointment times must be met. A swimsuit left behind might mean a missed lesson, after miles have been pedalled. Again, chirpy optimism. It’s okay. We will ride back, we will get it. It will be fine. We can still make it for the last part.
There are buses, but you can’t utilize them for grocery shopping. In our town, the rules are, if you can’t hold it entirely in your lap, it’s not welcome aboard. The double-stroller doesn’t fold up small enough, and the trailer I have to pull the children in behind the bike means we can’t take advantage of the rack they have at the front bumper. The bus is for long, slow, easy days, days when we want the air conditioning it provides more than the transportation. It can take almost an hour to go just a few miles. Usually it’s more efficient to outfit ourselves appropriately for the weather, square our shoulders, and make our own way.
No distance is too far, not really, as long as there is enough time in the day. Once I looked up an address and figured I’d need to ride six hilly miles just to get to an appointment. It wasn’t until the end of the round-trip journey that I thought: I have become someone who doesn’t blink at riding a dozen miles or more when I need to. It satisfies me that I can make that effort, that things aren’t easy for us but we soldier on, that we’re not soft and self-pitying. I might feel some redemption in these punishing tasks.
We are the only family I ever see who rides bikes to Costco, though, and when we did it during a downpour, drivers stared at us in the parking lot, nudged their passengers, smiled out at us, shaking their heads. It makes me feel a little defiant, a little proud. It’s just rain, we say to each other. We’re tough, aren’t we? the kids say. We bring insulated bags for frozen things. We only get one really bulky item each time, and we make use of every square inch of trailer space. The children hold things on their laps. We ride home on the trail and it’s like freedom. The last trip home meant spotting the goslings at the creek that had just recently hatched, so we stopped and climbed up the retaining wall, and watched for a long time.